Press

Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A mother’s been waiting almost a year for closure and answers. Kelley Blas is waiting for the official cause of her son’s death.

On June 21, 2023, Blas lost her son John Steen to an accidental overdose.

“We don’t know what exactly it was that took John, because we don’t have a toxicology report, we don’t have an autopsy, we don’t have a death certificate,” Blas said.

Blas said she never thought she’d be waiting upwards of 11 months to receive the documents. 

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said there are staffing troubles at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME.)

“NCDHHS has ongoing concerns about staff vacancies and high turnover at OCME, which have a negative impact on the system’s ability to maintain high-quality services for North Carolinians,” said NCDHHS.

Read more: Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

Blas knows how much closure those reports could bring. She lost her older son David to an intentional overdose in 2017 after struggles with mental health.  Four months after David’s death, Blas said she received the papers she once again is waiting for.

“I only could open it up just to read the cause of death, which I knew what it was, but I needed, I needed to see it,” Blas said. “And once I saw it, I closed it and locked it up in a box and I haven’t really looked at it since then. But it just gave me a sense of just, okay, this part is done, I don’t have to think of my child being in a morgue.”

DHHS said each case is different, so there is no typical time frame for completing reports. 

Blas said the state medical examiner’s office told her John’s case is complete, but pending pathology review.

OCME has 15 permanent state positions that are vacant, equal to a 20% vacancy rate, according to NCDHHS. NCDHHS said that includes four vacant pathologist positions (out of 13.)

At the same time, the caseload is growing, with a 26% case increase from 2019 to 2023, according to NCDHHS. The department said it is undoubtedly influenced by a 69% rise in suspected overdose deaths.

“A backlog in OCME creates challenges for law enforcement, attorneys, our public health partners and for the families and communities left behind,” said NCDHHS.

Blas emphasizes she’s not the only one waiting for closure, hearing stories of similar or longer waits from other families who lost also lost children to overdoses.

“When you lose someone, that already causes suffering, and then when you have to compound that by extending these waits longer and longer, I just, I’m not sure that others really understand what that’s like,” Blas said.

NCDHHS pointed to several recommendations in Governor Roy Cooper’s proposed budget, including:

  • Support expanded capacity by adding 35 permanent, state-funded positions to the OCME workforce;    
  • Strengthen and support local medical examiners by increasing their payments from $200 to $400 per case and would more adequately cover the cost of their time and mileage to/from a scene;   
  • Ensure local medical examiners are adequately supplied with scene kits, cameras and other necessary equipment to do their job;   
  • Improve communication for families, law enforcement, attorneys and others about the status of a medical examiner case by developing a 24-hour call center and self-service portal to more timely deliver case status information;    
  • Allow OCME to fully staff second and weekend shifts by providing compensation for OCME staff who are assigned non-traditional work hours; and   
  • Increase OCME’s ability to handle more cases though the much-needed expansion/renovation of the OCME location in Raleigh.    

Read the article and watch the video on the CBS17 website.

Wake County School Board approves Naloxone policy, raises meal prices

Wake County Schools Tuesday meeting.

The Wake County School Board has approved a new policy regarding the use of an overdose-reversing drug and raised meal prices for the 2024-2025 school year.

Wake County Schools will join other North Carolina districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg that have adopted a new policy on the emergency use of Naloxone.

The nasal spray, also known as Narcan, can help reverse opioid overdoses. The school board approved the policy on Tuesday.

Opioid Crisis in Wake County 

It will require up to at least three staff members in every school to learn how to use Narcan. The latest data from the Opioid Settlement chart shows 240 people died in 2021 due to opioid overdoses.

“All 200 Wake County Schools deserve to have naloxone,” said Barb Walsh, the executive director of the Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina. “It is no different than an EpiPen or an AED system or a fire extinguisher. It’s all life saving equipment.”

The new policy does not guarantee Naloxone at every school and it is also not required at activities held off school grounds. The Wake schools policy was also adopted ahead of a June 5 deadline to apply for county funding.

Read the original article on the WUNC Public Radio website.

Drugs sold as fentanyl in Goldsboro, Edgecombe overdoses contained 8 different substances

Xylazine, Benzatropine, a hallucinogen and another kind of designer chemical among drugs detected in sample linked to dozens of eastern North Carolina overdoses.

It’s been six weeks since four people died in Goldsboro in four days and more than a dozen others across eastern North Carolina overdosed in a matter of weeks.

Families, community members and law enforcement have been searching for answers about what caused this uptick.

This week, scientists at the UNC Street Drug Analysis Lab were able to provide those. The test results from a sample collected in a baggie show that what was sold as illegal fentanyl was actually a mixture of eight different drugs.

“It turns out it was a particularly nasty mix of substances that involved fentanyl and xylazine, Benzatropine, a hallucinogen and another kind of designer chemical,” said Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a senior scientist in the lab. “It was really unexpected so it’s not surprising that a mix like that leads to a lot of overdoses.”

The lab has partnerships with dozens of health organizations, including Edgecombe County EMS. In the weeks since the uptick in overdoses in the county, Dalton Barrett and Dasgupta have formed a friendship as they both work with the common goal to address the crisis in a data-driven, science-led manner.

“This was pretty eye opening for us,” Barrett said. “When I saw the results, there was a number of things that I’d never seen before in Edgecombe County, per se, and it didn’t really make sense as far as the mixture.”

Read more: Drugs sold as fentanyl in Goldsboro, Edgecombe overdoses contained 8 different substances

This is their second attempt at trying to identify what was in the supply that resulted in 16 nonfatal overdoses in Edgecombe during a two-week span last month. The first sample came from a dollar bill but there wasn’t enough residue for an analysis.

“I was extremely disappointed about the dollar bill sample,” Dalton said. ” I felt like maybe I had done something wrong or we just didn’t get lucky and sometimes that’s just how it goes. But being able to put our finger on this is gonna be a big, big deal for us.”

This time, the sample came from a stamp bag. The street product is known as Pringles.

What’s particularly unsettling: a few months earlier Barrett had samples tested from a different bag that had the same stamp and the results came back vastly different.

“Usually, we try and think about these stamps as like, labels on a beer bottle like this is Michelob Ultra, this is this and it’s like the same thing, time and time again,” Barrett explained. “But that’s not the case.”

Barrett says people in the community likely didn’t know that it was a mixture of so many substances since it had that same stamp and they had been safe using it in the past.

“Even the person selling it probably had no idea that it contained these substances,” Dasgupta said.

With the variety of drugs in the supply, WRAL News asked whether would naloxone work to reverse an overdose. Both men said yes, but the people probably would’ve remained unconscious because of how potent the substance was. It is unclear if xyzlazine testing strips would have worked in this case.

Barrett says they’re unsure if this contaminated supply remains in the area. They’ve seen a 33% drop in overdoses this month compared to last. Still, he says it’s “a big, big deal” they were able to put their finger on what exactly is in supply and he is hopeful the results will raise awareness and save lives.

“Seeing people of my age dying from something that we can prevent really kind of tickles my heartstrings as a medical professional,” Barrett said.

‘Fentanyl is everywhere.’ Wake schools wants to be ready to treat opioid overdoses.

Wake County schools will now be required to make sure that they’ve got employees who can treat opioid overdoses on campus.

The Wake County school board approved Tuesday a new policy on the emergency use of Naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose when given in time. Every Wake school will be required to have at least three employees who are trained in how to administer Naloxone, which is the generic name for the drug Narcan.

The policy comes as opioid overdoses and addiction have surged nationally.

In 2022, 219 people died from drug overdoses in Wake County, The News & Observer previously reported. Opioids — medicines prescribed for pain like codeine, fentanyl, oxycodone and morphine — were responsible in three-quarters of the deaths.

“Fentanyl is everywhere,” said school board member Wing Ng. “Fentanyl is a crisis. We all have to be aware of the signs and symptoms.”

STOCKING NALOXONE IN SCHOOLS

The policy directs Superintendent Robert Taylor to develop a program to place Naloxone at schools, early learning centers and district administrative offices. There’s currently no money in the budget to purchase Naloxone. The district estimates that it could cost $6,500 to $30,000 to place two Naloxone doses at each school. The board accelerated adoption of the policy to get it in place before a June 5 deadline to apply for funding from the county.

Read the full article on the Raleigh News & Observer website.

Bill would limit public access to autopsy records

A new proposal would reduce public access to autopsy reports in North Carolina.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers tacked a slew of new provisions onto House Bill 250, which previously focused on reworking the offenses for distributing drugs.

Changes include no longer allowing the public access to photographs, video or audio recordings in autopsy reports. Current law generally allows people to inspect and examine these under supervision. Only certain public officials are allowed to obtain copies.

Written reports could be limited as well, by another section dealing with criminal investigation records. The change would expand the definition of those records, which are not typically public, to include autopsy records.

A spokesperson for the state agency charged with investigating suspicious deaths said the proposal “compromises the ability to conduct thousands of investigations and limits the ability to share information with families.”

Read more: Bill would limit public access to autopsy records

The bill would also change the makeup of the state’s office tasked with providing help to indigent defendants.

WHAT IS PUBLIC NOW?

Currently, North Carolina death certificates, autopsy, investigation and toxicology reports are public records and once finalized may be obtained from the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

This bill would designate records compiled by OCME as records of criminal investigation, which are not public under state law.

Currently, records of criminal investigations conducted by public law enforcement agencies and by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission are not public. These include records compiled by the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory. The bill would add to this definition records compiled by OCME. If the bill is passed, this would become effective July 1.

Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, presented the bill on Tuesday. He said the bill “clarifies that all photos and videos of autopsy shall not be released to the public while a crime is being investigated or prosecuted.”

“There may be some concern for availability of these autopsy reports and photos being made available for press and things like that,” Britt acknowledged. “What this does is it ensures that these items are not released outside of the chain that may improperly influence the jury and, again, potentially lead to a case being overturned on appeal where a death is involved.”

He also said that the medical examiner’s records that the bill would treat as criminal investigation records would be accessible to the public at the conclusion of a criminal investigation and prosecution.

The bill would apply “just to those particular cases that are being prosecuted criminally,” not to other cases, Britt said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch.

He also said these restrictions would apply to family members, though district attorneys could sit down with the family and show the records.

WHO PERFORMS AUTOPSIES?

When someone dies in a violent, suspicious or unexpected way in North Carolina, part-time medical examiners inspect the bodies. If the cause of death is not clear, they request autopsies.

An investigation by The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer found that it often takes many months — and sometimes more than a year — for autopsies to be completed. That can cause financial crises for families who need autopsies and death certificates to access life insurance and other assets they’re entitled to inherit.

The system is backlogged chiefly because there are too many bodies and too few pathologists and toxicologists to perform autopsies, the newspapers’ investigation found.

The medical examiner system faces challenges, and “this bill as currently written, would make those challenges much, much more difficult,” Mark Benton, chief deputy secretary for health with DHHS, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Asked for further details on concerns with the bill, DHHS spokesperson Kelly Haight Connor wrote that “the proposed language weakens the independent nature of North Carolina’s medical examiner system, compromises the ability to conduct thousands of investigations and limits the ability to share information with families.”

In addition to the changes on public access, the bill adds “continuing education” training requirements for county medical examiners. It also details how examiners can request and obtain a deceased person’s personal belongings.

Haight Connor said DHHS had ongoing concerns with staff vacancies and high turnover at the OCME and “any changes in process or caseloads needs to be thoughtfully considered given these staffing concerns.”

Autopsy reports from shootings and other violent incidents are often requested by the news media to glean details that otherwise may have not been released on what occurred in the incidents.

South Carolina does not allow access to autopsy reports; its state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that these reports are not public records and fall under privacy provisions of the state’s open records law.

In 2020, a bill shielding some death investigation records from the public was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The General Assembly currently is controlled by Republicans and has a veto-proof supermajority.

Britt said the new bill was being worked on and should be ready by next Tuesday for votes.

District attorneys want to ”narrow this down to a workable piece that involves just the pending criminal cases,” said Chuck Spahos, a lobbyist for the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.

INDIGENT DEFENSE SERVICES REWORK

The bill also cuts the membership of North Carolina’s Commission on Indigent Defense Services from 13 members to nine.

It also grants two new appointments to the commission to the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and four to House and Senate leaders. All of those offices are currently held by Republicans.

It cuts the governor’s one appointment and that of various state associations. Gov. Roy Cooper is a Democrat.

Read the original article on the Raleigh News & Observer website.

New opioid overdose plan approved unanimously for Wake County Public School System

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) — There’s a push to get a life-saving medication in every Wake County school.

Wake County Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a new Naloxone policy.

Last month, Wake County school board members approved a new policy that requires all county schools to keep a supply of Naloxone – also known by its brand name Narcan – and train faculty members on how to use it.

Before the vote, school resource officers already carried Narcan, but not every Wake County school has an SRO. The newly approved plan requires at least three staff members at each school to be trained and able to administer the drug in case of an emergency. However, it fell short of requiring Naloxone to be kept on campus.

According to state health data, Naloxone was used for suspected overdoses 21 times on schools’ ground statewide in 2023.

“If we have a tool that can save a life, particularly one of our student’s lives,” Chris Heagarty, Wake County School board chair, said, “we want to do everything we can to take those steps.”

Under the new plan, each school principal will designate three or more people on their staff as a part of a medical care program. Those designated people will receive initial training and annual training on how to properly store naloxone, as well as how to administer it.

Each school principal will also need to come up with an emergency action plan for the use of naloxone that complies with all state laws.

“There’s definitely been people at my school that do drugs and it would be best if we had something like that on campus. God forbid something happens,” Cary High School student Emily Ranft said.

“I personally think it should be available in every school. Just because you never know. Better safe than sorry,” Dr. Collin Welteroth said.

This policy is personal for some Wake County mothers.

Barb Walsh, back in December, urged the school board to consider requiring Naloxone be put in schools countywide.

Walsh’s daughter Sophia, died nearly three years ago from fentanyl poisoning. She was drinking from a water bottle that had the dangerous opioid mixed into it.

She made it her mission to not only support families like hers but also promote the life-saving medicine Naloxone.

“It doesn’t take an army. It doesn’t take a lobbyist,” Walsh said to ABC11 in April. “It takes a mom who’s lost a child to stand in front of the school board to make this happen. And that’s significant.”

Tuesday’s Wake County school board meeting starts at 1 p.m.

Plan to supply Narcan in schools approved in Wake County for opioid emergencies

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The Wake County School board approved a policy to make naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, available in all schools and to train school staff to use it.

The newly-approved policy enables the district to put naloxone in schools across the county and train at least three people in each school to administer it if someone has an emergency that appears to be opioid-related.

Barb Walsh, whose daughter died after accidentally being exposed to fentanyl, came to the meeting with a large picture of her daughter and boxes of naloxone. She pleaded with the board to act quickly.

“Ten people die each day in North Carolina from fentanyl, and it’s in products people don’t know it’s in,” she said. “Kids may not intentionally take it, but they will die and this is how we’re going to save lives.”

She emphasized that it’s important to have naloxone in schools that serve children of all ages.

“We do not know what the environments of the children are, so we don’t know what age somebody will be ingesting fentanyl unintentionally, but the school will be ready.”

Before naloxone can be put in schools, though, the district has to obtain it. The board is looking at funding sources. One potential source of funding is Wake County’s opioid settlement money.

Applications are due by June 5, and the school board noted that deadline during Tuesday’s meeting. Board members decided to waive a second reading of the policy and move forward with approval, as staff said a policy must be in place before the board could apply for funding from the county.

WCPSS School Board approves Naloxone in Schools!

On May 21, 2024 at the Wake County Public School System board meeting Barbara Walsh spoke on the proposal to have Naloxone in all 200+ schools across Wake County.

Shortly after Barbara’s comments, WCPSS approved emergency use naloxone in all 200 schools! The second reading was waived and the motion PASSED!

Wake County Schools to consider implementing naloxone emergency use plan

The Wake County School Board is set to consider a proposal that would designate specific people on school campuses to be trained in administering naloxone in the event of an overdose emergency. However, it does not guarantee the availability of naloxone in every school.

Barb Walsh has dedicated her days to fighting the opioid epidemic. She has been steadfast in her pursuit for justice and bringing awareness to fentanyl fatalities and their families.

Walsh said her daughter Sophia died after drinking a water bottle with fentanyl in it. Now, she’s working to get naloxone in every school in the state.

“She could’ve been saved by naloxone, but she wasn’t,” Walsh told WRAL News. “She died instantly.”

Naloxone reverses the effects of opiates. On Tuesday, the Wake County School Board will consider implementing a naloxone emergency use plan.

Right now, school resource officers carry naloxone, but not every Wake County school has one.

“If [SROs] did receive that call to respond, and they were on campus, they will be able to arrive within minutes to be able to administer that Narcan, if needed,” said Sgt. Jeremy Pittman, with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.

Read more: Wake County Schools to consider implementing naloxone emergency use plan

In the proposal, it says principals would designate specific people on campus who would get training to administer it in the event of an emergency.

“Naloxone devices will be stored in secure but unlocked and easily accessible locations. Each school principal shall designate one or more school personnel, as part of the medical care program under G.S. 115C-375.1, to receive initial training and annual retraining from a school nurse or qualified representative of the local health department regarding the storage and emergency use of naloxone devices. The training shall include basic instruction and information on how to administer naloxone. Only such trained personnel are authorized to administer naloxone to persons believed to be having an overdose reaction, “ it reads.

Additionally, the principal would collaborate with “appropriate school personnel” to create an emergency action plan, including a school-wide employee training to recognize the symptoms of an opioid overdose.

However, each school would not be required to have it.

“This policy also does not guarantee availability of naloxone devices at school, and students and parents/guardians should consult with their own physician(s) regarding such medication(s). Nothing in this policy should be construed to require the presence or use of naloxone on school property or at school sponsored events, unless otherwise required by law. The Board cannot and does not guarantee that naloxone or a person trained in its use will be available at any particular school site or school-sponsored event,” the proposal reads.

That’s because the drug comes with a price tag, according to a district spokesperson. The spokesperson said the district is still working to identify funding to get the drug in every school. The current budget does not reflect funding for naloxone in each school. However, it could change.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, “Opioid overdose on school grounds increased this school year, with 21 incidents of naloxone use.”

Of the 115 school districts in the state, 22 have a district-wide program supported with local policy and procedure, according to NCDHHS.

“Naloxone in schools is a safety policy,” Walsh said. “We have AEDs in schools; we have EpiPens in schools; we have fire extinguishers in schools. Naloxone is not different.”

Walsh said people also need to change their attitudes.

“Everybody gets judged. That judgment is the person, the victim, is somehow at fault, that they’re less than,” she said. “It is a medical emergency. That person’s life could be saved.”

Additionally, Walsh said implementing naloxone in each school will bring wider awareness to the issue in general.

“You’re also educating about the symptoms of fentanyl,” she said. “They’ll have more tools in their toolbox.”

The board has been supportive of the proposal in previous meetings. A final vote will be required after Tuesday’s meeting.

Read the article and watch the video on the WRAL TV5 News website.

Breaking the silence: Nonprofits gather to raise awareness about fentanyl poisoning

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Non-profits from across the state gathered at Legion Stadium on Sunday to spread awareness about fentanyl poisoning.  

Attendees also had the chance to receive free Narcan—known generically as naloxone—which is a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of fentanyl poisoning. 

Leslie and Duane Locklear lost two of their sons, Matt and Ryan Locklear to fentanyl poisoning in 2022. The couple started the Fight 4 Me Foundation in their sons’ memory. They said one of the biggest challenges with fentanyl education is the negative stigma.  

“A great number of people, for whatever reason, don’t want to talk about it. They just want to stigmatize it and push it to the side, and knowledge is power so we just took that calling upon ourselves to get out there and try to make people aware of how bad that problem really is,” Duane said. 

Barb Walsh of Fentanyl Victims Network of North Carolina lost her 24-year-old daughter Sophia after she drank from a water bottle laced with the synthetic drug. 

“She grabbed a water bottle out of the refrigerator, the water bottle contained eight nanograms of diluted Fentanyl. She died instantly. No Naloxone in the house. She was left for ten hours before 911 was called,” she said. 

Non-profits from across the state gathered at Legion Stadium on Sunday to spread awareness about fentanyl poisoning.  (Photo: Nate Mauldin/WWAY)
Read more: Breaking the silence: Nonprofits gather to raise awareness about fentanyl poisoning

At the event, rapper 22Jax and Ladydice shot a music video for their song “For Y’all,” which aims to break the stigma surrounding fentanyl education. 

“It’s bigger than everything that’s going on. It became very personal for me when I heard about the 19-month-old that did not wake up from her nap or his nap at the Airbnb, that’s insane. I have a 19-month-old at the house, so it really struck home,” 22Jax explained. 

Forgotten Victims of North Carolina Founder Patricia Drewes lost her daughter Heaven to fentanyl poisoning in 2018, leaving behind her son, Cameron. Drewes’ hope is that more parents like her will educate their children.  

“For God’s sake, educate your children. I had no idea. I wish I had known then what I know now. We have to educate our parents, we have to educate our children.”   

According to the North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, since 2016, more than 15,000 North Carolinians have died from fentanyl poisoning.  

If you would like to know how obtain Narcan in case of a life-threatening emergency, New Hanover County Health and Human Services has a list of where to get Narcan locally for free, with insurance. 

Read the original article on the WWAY TV3 News website.